New York State is banning a group of substances sold legally as incense, but often smoked for their marijuana-like effect.
The products come under many names, including Spice, K2, Skunk and Mr. Nice Guy. Their active ingredients mimic the effect of THC, the active substance in marijuana. These compounds are not yet controlled by federal law, but health officials and legislatures in 40 states around the country have grown sufficiently concerned about their side effects to outlaw all “synthetic cannabinoids,” as they’re officially called.
"They have some effects that are similar to marijuana, but they have toxic effects that are really unknown,” New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said. “We’ve had case reports of adverse reactions — an increased number of case reports — and we know that’s just the tip of the iceberg, that there may be many more incidents that we don’t know about.”
The city’s Poison Control Center received four calls related to synthetic marijuana in 2010, 71 calls last year and 44 calls in the first three months of 2012.
Dr. David Lee, a toxicologist and emergency-room physician at Northshore-LIJ Hospital in Manhasset, said the numbers are still relatively low, but they’ve been climbing — even in suburban Nassau County. About once a month, he and his colleagues see someone in the E.R. who says they’ve used the drugs.
“They will typically have chest pains, palpitation, high levels of anxiety, feelings of losing self-control,” Lee said.
A young man actually showed Dr. Lee’s team a packet of the drug and told them about a nearby bodega where he got it, but when one physician went to the store to try to purchase it, the store-owner said he didn’t carry the product.
Jay Miranda works at a shop on 6th Avenue in Greenwich Village that sells a version of the synthetic pot. She says her customers have had a range of reactions to it. "Its like a 50-50, some people say they like it, its pretty good and some people don't like it because they're used to the real thing."
She says it's not just kids that have tried it. "I get people in the military, teachers, or people in rehab trying to pass their drug test," she explained. "There's always a market for people seeking the next thrill."
Queens resident David Brightman falls in the camp that doesn’t like it. He supports the ban, especially since he tried the synthetic version. "It gave me a headache, it felt like my chest was caving in, my heart rate increased, it was just a crazy experience. I'd rather drink liquor and have a good time."
It’s not clear how prevalent synthetic marijuana use is. According to one phone survey by the National Institute for Drug Abuse — a division of the National Institutes of Health —11 percent of high school seniors said they had tried it.
The ban comes as an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo and is effective immediately. New York City issued its own parallel ban, for largely procedural reasons. Health Commissioner Farley said the city will be sending out warnings to all retailers that sell cigarettes and will be making inspections of some stores and bodegas.
Dr. Guohua Li, who studies social patterns of substance abuse at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said outlawing synthetic marijuana is a good step, but thinks there are further challenges ahead.
“Much of it is sold on the internet, so enforcement will not be easy,” Li said. “Outlawing it nationally would help.”
Of the ten states which have not yet banned synthetic marijuana, most are in the East Coast, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maryland.
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) has authored a bill that would add synthetic marijuana to the federal registry of controlled substances, but Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) has opposed the measure, saying it’s too broad.
Kathleen Horan contributed to this report.